I faced my aging mother across her small writing table in her apartment. A few days shy of 87 years, she radiated joy and humor, making me wish I could immerse myself permanently in her peaceful oasis. We were in a deep discussion about a number of things, memories of my father, our family (of which I am the youngest), and I hit on the secret of her happiness.
“Did I ever tell you about the time when I was terribly depressed?” she asked. “Well, I was down in the dumps. I can’t even remember how I got there. It was horrible. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it.”
“Were we kids giving you a hard time?”
“No, everything was going well with you children...I don’t know, but I was really down for weeks. One day, however, I heard a voice inside saying to me, ‘Think of one thing you can be thankful for.’ ‘OK,’ I answered, ‘I’ll try.’ But at that point I didn’t have any hope to speak of. Nevertheless, I began to think of my children. The more I thought about them, the more I felt thankful for each one of them. That was the turning point.”
“Like a light at the end of the tunnel?”
“Well, more like a step up, as one thankful thought led to another. It was like I was taking one step after another, and then I was out. I’ve never suffered from that kind of despondency again.”
That conversation really struck me, and brought to mind another encounter I had – one in which I experienced the opposite. My husband and I had visited old family friends, a couple recently moved to assisted living in a nearby town. Elsie was beside herself, “I want to die! I want to die! I’m going through hell – I can’t live like this anymore! ” I was shocked and tried to comfort her. Her misery was rooted in a number of things, which she readily listed: a rash from which she couldn’t find relief, extreme unhappiness over the nursing home and its staff, and frustration with her husband of over half a century who couldn’t help her. Her list consumed the things that could have made her thankful.
Many passages in the Bible speak about thankfulness and gratitude. The Psalms alone are full of them. The Apostle Paul, who repeatedly suffered for his faith, also writes about thankfulness: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” No exceptions, no loop holes: in all circumstances, Paul writes, we are to be thankful.
Like my mother, there have been times in my life when I could not feel thankful about anything. When I lost my first-born son, Stephen, I just wanted to die and go be with him. I could not bear the pain of his loss. I didn’t want to go on. But I learned, like Job, to give thanks and that thankfulness had a way of carrying its own blessings. I still feel the pain of missing Stephen, and yet I thank God every day for how his short life taught me to find God’s blessing in every situation, even if in retrospect.
I am still apt to complain about every adverse situation that comes my way. I suppose this is a normal human response. But what would happen if I made a more conscious effort to approach adversity, or just plain life, with a thankful attitude? I have tried to do this, and failed often. But I keep trying because thankfulness has a way of breeding more thankfulness, and with thankfulness, love, peace, joy – all the things we crave deep down – are not far behind.
Jeremias Gotthelf, a Swiss pastor in the 19th century who wrote many tales about peasant life, once wrote, “There is no greater sin than to complain when in fact one has every reason to praise and thank God.” When I first read these words I resisted them. At the same time, I couldn’t forget them either. It is true. There is always something to be thankful for, if, that is, we choose to be thankful: a child, a friend, a spouse, shelter, warmth, clothing, food, and most and greatest of all, the Savior himself.
There’s a lot of despair today, and a great many things to be depressed about. Millions keep hoping for better economic times. But in the meantime, how difficult would it be to start a Thankful Revolution? Just think if each human being on earth were to lift up at least one genuinely thankful thought every day. Who knows how much our planet would change. Who knows how this could open the way for the kingdom of God to penetrate this world.
I often tell my children, “You can only change one person, and that is yourself.” I’m not sure how a Thankful Revolution might spread, but I’m sure a key to its happening is for it to begin in my own heart. My mother is right. One thankful thought leads to another. Let the Thankful Revolution begin!